Peter King traces Los Angeles Rams’ improbable revival culminating in NFL Week 17 win


BALTIMORE — They are the 21 days that should have tried Rams’ souls. Instead, these last 21 days revived Rams’ souls.

Forty players, coaches and football staff—more than any team in the league—tested positive for Covid. Two vital players were sidelined hours before the start of this ramrod schedule: at Arizona, Seattle (delayed two days because of 22 positives that week), at desperate Minnesota, at desperate Baltimore. Because of the Covid spread and the heavy rains in southern California, the team has not had a full, normal practice since early December. With all that, the Rams had to go 4-0 in this stretch to have a realistic chance to pass 10-2 Arizona and be in position to win the division.

Facing the Ravens on Sunday at the big Crabcake, the Rams’ crazy 20-19 win—keyed by superstar acquisitions Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.—finished the crazy schedule stretch. The Rams went 4-0. They’ll win the NFC West with either a home win over the Niners this weekend or an Arizona loss to Seattle.

Going 4-0 in that three-week stretch is one of the great accomplishments this season by any NFL team, particularly in the hazy time of the record number of Covid positives. But Christmas Day highlighted a particularly bizarre weekend.

Stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth went to bed on Friday night, Christmas Eve, feeling lousy. The team’s head athletic trainer, Reggie Scott, told Whitworth if he didn’t feel good Christmas morning, he should report for 5 a.m. Covid testing at the team facility. Whitworth didn’t sleep much that night, felt feverish, and he knew the team needed him for the Sunday game at Minnesota, and he thought of trying to gut it out. “But I knew the responsible thing with this outbreak running through our team was to test and try to slow it down,” he said.

Los Angeles Rams v Baltimore Ravens
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and teammates. (Getty Images)

Whitworth’s first three rapid-test swabs in the 5 a.m. test were positive. He was out for Sunday. His backup, Joe Noteboom, had been out with Covid, but the Rams felt he was trending in a healthy direction, and he reported for the early test. And just as the Rams buses were about to leave for the trip to Minnesota, Noteboom’s PCR test came back positive.

The third option at left tackle, David Edwards, started. But 18 plays into the game, center Brian Allen got hurt, and the Rams shuffled the line, and undrafted rookie Alaric Jackson moved to left tackle for the last 52 snaps against the Vikings.

Jackson, the Rams’ fourth left tackle, gave up zero sacks and one pressure of Matthew Stafford. Rams 30, Vikings 23.

“The blessing in disguise,” Whitworth said, “over the last three weeks is we’ve got guys playing that never played. We’re relying on guys that we’ve never had to rely on before. There’s almost this adversity, this belief system of anybody can get in there and we can be okay. Then you get your guys back and you start getting stronger and there’s just this bond that’s bigger than whether or not one guy can do it. It’s made us have this little resolve that maybe we didn’t have as early in the year. We were a good team, but maybe something was missing. We’re more complete.”

More than that, the Rams are thriving in this ridiculous time. And about 35 of their players, having tested positive in December, now do not have to test through the end of the season, because the NFL gives players who tested positive a 90-day holiday—with a CDC nod of approval—from the testing protocols. More than half of the roster is free of the testing burden, and the Covid burden. Think how handy that will be if the Rams advance in the playoffs. Half the roster can practice and play with an uncluttered mind.

“We are playing football, and playing winning football, through the biggest pandemic of our lifetime,” said Scott, the team’s Infection Control Officer. “Today, these four important players are available. Tomorrow, they’re not. Sometimes I just pinch myself. Really, it’s incredible.”

This really was a compelling game. The Ravens have been ravaged by injury and Covid unlike any team in the league. They’re paying 89 players (about 15 above the league average), with about $77 million in 2021 cap money on IR. You could argue the five most important positions on the run-heavy Ravens are QB, RB, LT, CB and CB. The starters at every one of those spots in August—Lamar JacksonJ.K. DobbinsRonnie StanleyMarlon HumphreyMarcus Peters—were hurt and not dressed Sunday.

These must-win games are stressful enough for the players. But when I asked Baltimore vet Calais Campbell what this year had been like for him, he said, “Stressful. So stressed. Not just the game itself, but doing everything to be available for the game,” he said. “I can’t afford to test positive. My team needs me. So I try to stay at home as much as possible. Even at home, I’ve been masking up, which is so weird. My son’s looking at me like, ‘Why do you have a mask on?’ But it’s crunch time. You just can’t risk it.”

The Rams took similar precautions on their trip east Saturday. The traveling party was cut down to 75 people on a 239-seat charter—the players, by seniority, get the 30 cushy first-class seats that can lay flat—and eight buses take the 75 people to and from the team hotel and stadium. Nine or 10 people per bus seems weird. “It’s tough to have camaraderie the same as always,” Whitworth said, “because everything is designed to separate us. It’s a little isolating.”

The Rams aren’t perfect. Matthew Stafford turned it over three times for the second straight game Sunday; the Rams won’t continue to survive three stunted drives per game in the playoffs. “I hate going over all of these—I’m tired of doing it,” Stafford said in a moment of introspection after the game. The two picks were surprisingly careless, particularly the pick-six by Chuck Clark to open the scoring. It conjures Detroit Lions thoughts, and those can’t continue as the Rams think about seriously contending for the Super Bowl.

But it seems the more the Rams play together, the more they go into a sort of happy survival mode. Vets like Miller and Beckham both seem so happy to be on a contender, and their play reflects it. The two biggest plays in the game were made by the mid-season imports.

Baltimore led 19-14 with 68 seconds left, with the game on the line. The Rams had fourth-and-five at the Ravens’ 12-yard line. For one of the few times all day, the Baltimore crowd sounded like it had so many times in the Ray Lewis days. As Stafford rolled left, his first option was tight end Tyler Higbee, with Cooper Kupp the second. Both covered. Though Beckham was covered tightly coming across the middle, Stafford thought he had a tight window, and with the rush coming, he was running out of time and options. “The ball needed to get there in a hurry,” Stafford said. “I ripped it pretty good. For him to reach out and snatch it and hold onto it, take a big hit in the back, that was huge.” Beckham stretched for the first down. I bet he made it by eight inches. On the next play, Stafford fit it in to Beckham next to the right pylon. For the first time all day, the Rams led.

The Ravens had one last chance, with a first down at the Baltimore 38-yard line and no timeouts left. Miller had been jonesing for a big play all day against Ravens tackle Patrick Mekari because he respects his game, and because he arrived from Denver in trade to make big plays. This time Miller sped by and enveloped quarterback Tyler Huntley for an eight-yard sack. That was the ballgame. “To have A.D. [Aaron Donald] jump on my back, and to have all the guys go crazy, that’s what you play the game for,” Miller said.

You could hear through the door separating the Rams’ locker room and the press-conference room in Baltimore. That was one exultant team late Sunday afternoon. The Rams deserved to let loose. When they took the field in Glendale 21 days earlier, they were 8-4, two games and the tiebreaker behind 10-2 Arizona. And with a week to play, L.A. has a one-game lead, the division title in sight.

Beckham, in particular, reveled in the Ram rally. “It’s tatted on me,” Beckham said. “ ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands at moments of comfort and convenience, but times of challenge and controversy.’ “ The Rams are measuring up well.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Analyzing Bears sending No. 1 NFL draft pick to Panthers


This is the day NFL free agency begins, the day when agents and teams can legally begin to negotiate contracts that they’ve already been, you know, illegally negotiating. But a Molotov cocktail got thrown into the top 10 of the draft over the weekend, so that takes precedence this morning.

And well, that escalated quickly.

The top of the draft got turned upside-down by Ryan Poles and the desperado Carolina Panthers just after 5 Eastern Time Friday afternoon, six days after he told me it’d take a ransom for the Bears to deal the top overall pick.

Poles got a lot from Carolina for the top pick: the ninth and 61st overall picks this year, a first-round pick in 2024, a second-round pick in 2025, and the Panthers’ number one wideout, D.J. Moore, healthy and entering his age-26 season. Moore’s not a top-10 NFL receiver, but he’s certainly in the top 20, after three 1,000-yard years in his first five NFL seasons.

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Because the trade cannot be announced until Wednesday, the start of the 2023 league year, the Panthers and Bears were zipped up tight over the weekend. But I’ve gathered a few nuggets.

The prevailing wisdom: Chicago got enough for the pick, assuming D.J. Moore can be the primo receiver Justin Fields desperately needs. Carolina paid through the nose, and recent draft history is littered with lousy tradeups into the top five for quarterbacks who didn’t pan out (Robert Griffin III, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold). “If Carolina doesn’t pick the right quarterback, the trade’s a disaster,” said former NFL wheeler-dealer Jimmy Johnson.


This deal was not getting done without D.J. Moore in it. The Bears had a bottom-five group of wideouts in 2022, even after trading for Chase Claypool in midseason. Darnell Mooney, Claypool and Equanimeous St. Brown, as a group, weren’t going to give Fields his best chance to emerge as a quarterback and developing Fields is priority one for the ’23 Bears. The free-agency wideout crop is a D-minus, and unless Poles wanted to use his only pick in the top-50 on a receiver, Moore (or a number one receiver like him) was vital. Certainly Carolina didn’t want to deal one of its best five players, in his prime; in the span of six months, the Panthers have dealt their two best offensive players, Christian McCaffrey and Moore. But if they wanted to be sure of having their choice of quarterbacks come April 27, Moore had to be sacrificed.

I don’t think Carolina has decided which quarterback it wants. Of course the GM, Scott Fitterer, and scouts who’ve investigated quarterbacks have their leanings. Of course coach Frank Reich and his staff have their opinions after watching tape and meeting the passers at the Combine. But 45 days out from the first round, this isn’t a done deal. It wouldn’t be smart for it to be a done deal.

I’ve heard the same rumors everyone else has—that Frank Reich loves Florida QB Anthony Richardson. And he may be the pick. But I’m a bit skeptical. Nothing against Richardson, who is one of the most interesting QB prospects in the past few drafts. I wonder, though, about trading two first-round picks, two second-round picks and one of your five best players for a player with a high ceiling but with one year as a college starter. Trading to number one and choosing Richardson might turn out to be brilliant. But picking Richardson number one after dealing five prime pieces for him is a major risk.

However, if Richardson become The Guy, I expect Carolina to consider a minor trade-down. This would be tricky. When teams make draft trades, the team trading up doesn’t usually admit who the player target is. In this case, the Panthers, if trading from one to, say, Houston at two, would have to be assured the Texans weren’t taking the quarterback Carolina wants. That would require some trust, obviously. Going much beyond two would be a chancy venture.

Reich has never coached a short quarterback, and Bryce Young is 5-10. Is that meaningful? I give it a little weight. In Reich’s 17 years as a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach, his starting quarterbacks in Indianapolis, Arizona, San Diego, Philadelphia and Indianapolis (again) have been 6-6 (Nick Foles, John Skelton), 6-5 (Peyton Manning, Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Rivers again, Wentz again), 6-4 (Curtis Painter, Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Ryan), 6-3 (Ryan Lindley) and 6-2 (Sam Ehlinger). The 6-3 and 6-2 guys totaled six starts, and I suspect that starting Ehlinger twice in Reich’s last two games in Indy was not Reich’s idea. So in 17 years, all but six games Reich coached were started by quarterbacks 6-4 and taller. Reich’s a traditionalist. He played in an era with big quarterbacks. To stake the future of the franchise on a great player, but a 5-10 player, would be unconventional for him. However, Fitterer comes from Seattle, where the 5-10-ish Russell Wilson was a major outlier for a decade. Young has gotten rave reviews for his football smarts, and just finished two years with a demanding NFL QB teacher, Bill O’Brien, at Alabama. So never say never about the short QB.

One other thing about Bryce Young that Reich and his staff will love and could sway them toward a 5-10 QB. There probably wasn’t a quarterback in college football last year who was as smart and resourceful as Young. Case in point: On most snaps at Alabama, Young called two plays in the huddle and decided which to use—himself, not with a signal from the sidelines—once he read the defense at the line. “That’s very NFL,” said one league quarterback authority who has studied Young. “I think that’s one of the reasons his height isn’t as big a deal as it might be—he’s dealt with figuring out the right play all the time based on what he sees from the defense, and I’m sure he factors in not getting in traffic with a bunch of 6-5 guys.” Two other points to consider about Young: He didn’t have many balls batted down. And Reich is not an inflexible person—if he thinks Young’s markedly the best prospect, he’ll be good taking him.

Does Young’s size mean 6-3 C.J. Stroud has the best chance to be the pick? Two veteran front-office people I spoke with Saturday think Stroud makes the most sense, but those two men are not making this call. Stroud did play the single-most impressive game of any of the four first-round prospects (including Kentucky’s Will Levis) this year—putting up 41 points on Georgia in the college playoffs, throwing for 348 yards with four TDs and no interceptions—so that counts for something.

Where is Chicago left? My column last week focused heavily on the Bears, and now that the deal’s been done, Poles faces a few truths. He knows he needs to bulk up on the offensive line; he has the cap room (a league-high $69.9-million in effective cap space, per to afford one of the top three tackles in free-agency—Orlando Brown, Mike McGlinchey or Kaleb McGary. Re the draft: Being at nine takes him out of the ballgame for the best pass-rusher, Will Anderson of Alabama, and likely puts number two edge player Tyree Wilson of Texas Tech out of range. But the top offensive-line prospect, Peter Skoronski of Northwestern, could be there at nine. Poles could be smartest spending on one tackle in free agency, and one defensive linemen—Dre’Mont Jones or the pricey Javon Hargrave, or perhaps Frank Clark to beef up the pass-rush.

It’s amazing how different the Bears could look come training camp. Imagine Fields throwing to D.J. Moore outside or in the slot, with Brown protecting his blind side, and Skoronski plugged in either at guard or tackle as a day-one starter. Imagine Jones and Clark buttressing a needy defensive line. That’s all fantasy football, of course, but Poles has the cap room and draft picks (9, 53, 61, 64 overall) to make some plug-and-play decisions between now and May 1.

Re Carolina: Anyone who scouts the quarterbacks comes away thinking Young and Stroud are good candidates for the top pick. The game has changed in the past few years. If you love Young the most, you’re going to deploy an offense that’s 97-percent in shotgun and let him be the smart guy at the line he was at Alabama. Stroud showed the ability to drive the football with confidence; clearly, he’ll be able to make every NFL throw, and he’s afraid of nothing. But then there’s Richardson. It’s certainly possible in the next six weeks the Panthers could talk themselves into the versatile Florida quarterback with the great arm and 80- and 81-yard college TD runs.

I wish I could tell you a good gut feel on who Carolina will pick, but I can’t. As I say, I’m sure those who will collaborate to make the pick have leanings today. Leanings can change in 45 days.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Dolphins make statement with Jalen Ramsey trade


Jalen Ramsey to the Dolphins made too much sense, for both Miami and the Rams. It happened Sunday afternoon. We should have seen it coming for weeks.

The trade—Ramsey to Miami for a mid-third-round pick, 77th overall, and an invisible tight end from the 2021 third round, Hunter Long—seems light for the Rams. And it is, but the market for a cornerback entering his age-29 season who wants a contract extension and who gave up 65-percent completions to his man in coverage last year wasn’t as robust as the Rams had hoped. There was also the matter of Ramsey wanting to go to Miami.

The Dolphins are all-in for 2023. The Rams are all-in for 2025. It’s now officially official: L.A. is a bleep-them-picks franchise no longer, and will build for the future with their 11 picks this April.

Miami will contend if Tua Tagovailoa can stay on the field most or all of the regular season. That’s a certainty. But this deal is an admission the Dolphins won’t be a title team without major improvement on defense. The new coordinator, Vic Fangio, is piece one of the rebuild. Ramsey is an important second piece. The Dolphins in 2022 allowed 113 more points (one TD per game) than the Bills and had interceptions in just five of 17 games. The pricy free-agent cornerback from 2021, Byron Jones, may be too injured to count on. If Aaron Rodgers signs with the Jets and if Lamar Jackson plays with Baltimore, Miami will have nine games in 2023 against premier quarterbacks: Josh Allen and Rodgers (two each), with one against Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Justin Herbert, Jackson and Dak Prescott. Ramsey and Xavien Howard should be a formidable cover duo in Fangio’s new defense.

The Rams are going to build through the draft for the foreseeable future, reversing course from the Super Bowl LVI title team. In the last two years, they’ve had one pick in the top 100, total. This year they’ve got three in the top 77 (36, 69 and 77, and I would look for GM Les Snead to try to swap the 36th overall for two or three picks). Long has done zero in two years for two head coaches in Miami, so I wouldn’t count much on him.

Two teams traveling different roads, both using present-day logic. This weekend of big transition will continue with the first week of the new league year and more transition.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column